Dear Mr. Manley, Please Build an Off-Road Grand Cherokee

Seth Parks
by Seth Parks
dear mr manley please build an off road grand cherokee

Don’t do it for us. Do it for yourself.

Jeep is not a purveyor of transportation appliances. It creates and markets lifestyle products built on its off-road reputation. And the brand is not well positioned to compete in the increasingly crowded SUV/CUV space based purely on quality and everyday performance. But that’s okay, because Jeep can drive growth by playing to the strengths that brought it 865,000 customers last year, the essence of which is extreme off-road capability.

Jeep sales grew a dizzying 25 percent in the United States last year. Through the first third of 2016, the brand is tracking for two-percent growth. Blowing past the elusive one million sales mark in the U.S., and staying there, will not be easy. The Wrangler will continue to anchor the emotional identity of the brand, but Jeep would benefit from diversification as the top. To continue its impressive seven consecutive years of growth, Jeep should offer two distinct, yet equally capable products that speak to enthusiasts and mainstream consumers alike.

Jeep needs to build a hardcore, off-road version of the Grand Cherokee.

Over the last decade, automakers have become adept at using platform adaptations to drive a wedge between traditional market categories to cleave off new segments. The Germans have been prolific in this regard, but the domestics and Japanese brands are on board too. And not just with cars. Ford, Jeep, Ram, and Toyota have each taken risks with narrowly focused off-road oriented products and have proven, when done right, a robust market for factory prepared, off-road rigs exists.

Wrangler and F-150 were seemingly made for the modifications necessary to build their unique Rubicon and Raptor derivatives. But neither of these extensive adaptations was a sure thing. Ford was gleeful in 2010 when it announced the sale of just 7,085 Raptors in year one. And the Rubicon wouldn’t exist had it not been for a small group of mid-level insiders who had years of patience to go along with their shared vision of off-road purity. The strategy of taking an already capable high-volume vehicle and creating an off-road monster is now well established, moderating the risk of bringing such products to market.

Tapping into the lucrative vein of off-road enthusiasm requires three elements. First, the product must feature a dramatic visual presence. This generally means an elevated ride height coupled with plus-size tires. Second, it must have genuine standout off-road chops. Third, its brand must craft and invest in a unique lifestyle message that elevates the product to aspirational status. The Rubicon enjoys a nearly irrefutable reputation, while Ford has repeatedly taken the Raptor to Baja, Dakar, and elsewhere to establish its reputation. Regardless, if you’re an OEM, you want your rig on posters in the bedrooms of adolescents and the workshops of enthusiasts across the land.

The F-150 Raptor and Wrangler Rubicon are top-of-mind examples, each with sales exceeding 20,000 units annually. Toyota’s TRD Pro and Ram’s Power Wagon are also successful instances of what can be accomplished when OEMs go beyond shocks, skid plates, and stickers. These rigs, when properly executed and appropriately marketed, become halo vehicles that not only drive showroom traffic, but elevate average transaction prices and increase profit margins. Jeep and Ford have checked each of these boxes with the Rubicon and Raptor. Ram and Toyota have also developed visually distinctive, genuinely capable off-roaders in their Power Wagon and TRD Pro products, but have been less effective in wrapping a lifestyle message around them.

Jeep can capitalize on the Grand Cherokee to extend the brand’s off-road reputation and generate new sales. The Grand Cherokee, internally designated WK2, is the third best-selling nameplate in the Jeep range, accounting for 22 percent of sales in the United States and Canada in 2015 (Wrangler 24 percent, Cherokee 27 percent). Additionally, it is well differentiated versus the Wrangler, has 23 years of market longevity, competitive powertrains, and legitimate off-road capability in its current incarnations.

What’s more, Jeep has demonstrated a readiness to use the WK2 as a showcase for innovation. Grand Cherokees have formed the basis for concepts at three of the last four Easter Jeep Safaris, held each spring in Moab, Utah. In 2013, Jeep showed the Trailhawk II. This concept featured 35-inch tires facilitated through revised bodywork. It had no lift. In 2014, it brought the Trail Warrior to Utah. This concept was an exercise in aesthetic modifications and not hardcore, Wrangler-challenging capability. For 2015, Jeep prepared the Overlander, which featured 34-inch rubber sitting under an almost imperceptible one-inch lift.

Jeep already offers the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, which includes legitimate upgrades to the already Trail Rated off-road packages available across the Grand Cherokee range. However, Trailhawk is to the Grand Cherokee as the FX4 is to F-150 — a low-cost enhancement ideal for treacherous driveways and the occasional fire or logging road. Trailhawk does not get enthusiasts’ blood pumping and it does not contain the elements necessary to develop a halo product.

There is more to producing an enthusiast magnet than lifting and badging — each product needs a purpose. Broadly speaking, there are two off-road genres. The go-anywhere work-a-day off-roader, as epitomized by the Rubicon, and the high-speed desert busting pre-runner, as exemplified by the Raptor. The Jeep brand is better aligned with low-velocity rock-crawling adventure rigs than pre-runners. And a modified WK2 could be designed to mine the go-anywhere enthusiast seam. However, the purpose of adding another hyper-capable off-roader to the Jeep lineup is to extend the brand’s reputation and appeal. Moreover, the Raptor’s charm has as much to do with its appearance as it does with the knowledge that it can rip across a desert with race-truck authority — and then take you to work the next morning. High-velocity excitement is what Jeep should tap into with the hardcore Grand Cherokee.

Creating the uber Grand Cherokee would require a real effort, but as with the industry benchmark Raptor and Rubicon, high-quality bones are already there. Specific modifications would include 33- to 34-inch tires on 17-inch wheels, along with a 2- to 3-inch lift, preferably co-developed with a brand enhancing name such as Fox Racing, TeraFlex, or American Expedition Vehicles. The Quadra-Lift Air Suspension allowing variable ride heights would be eliminated. Front and rear tracks would be stretched, and based on Jeep’s 2013 Trailhawk II concept with 35 inch rubber, broader fenders with larger openings would be required. The approach angle would be increased with a purposeful bumper mounting a pair of off-road lights and a subtle pre-runner skid plate under center. The departure angle would be improved with a new rear bumper mounting a full-size spare tire. Robust rock sliders and under-body protection would also be specified. Rounding-out the exterior modifications would be trim-specific wheels and two or three unique paint colors.

For every consumer seeking the well-engineered capabilities of a factory prepared off-roader with one-stop financing and factory warranty, there are at least two others who simply want to associate themselves with the Jeep image, and Jeep needs to appeal to as many customers as possible. Therefore, the interior packaging strategy should borrow from the Power Wagon playbook with a hose-it-out base model for committed enthusiasts, supplemented by mid and high-end trims, likely Limited and Overland, for those seeking luxury to go with their desert dreams. In addition to these interior considerations, some gauge and upholstery badging would be necessary.

A powerful demand enhancing tool would be to limit the Grand Cherokee to Hemi and EcoDiesel power and to offer each of these engines in a unique tune. Ford appears to be executing a similar strategy with the 2017 Raptor, though Jeep would not need to go whole-hog to deliver a material degree of differentiation from the rest of the Grand Cherokee range. Modifications to the intake, exhaust, and electronics of both power plants could deliver an inexpensive yet meaningful 20-30 horsepower bump. And the more the better, because consumers shopping this segment will be motivated by more grunt. If Jeep wants to take the gloves off, it could specify the rumored turbocharged Pentastar V6 or even Hellcat power, which is already being shoe-horned between the Grand Cherokee’s front wheels for the upcoming SRT.

The Raptor and 4Runner TRD Pro account for three to four percent of total sales for their parent nameplates. The Rubicon delivers a greater fraction of sales for Wrangler. If the Super Grand Cherokee generated a conservative three to four percent of WK2 sales, Jeep would find homes for 6,000 to 8,500 units a year, almost certainly enough to justify developing a hardcore, off-road oriented Grand Cherokee all on its own. And when taking into account the brand-building value of such a product, the project becomes a must.

If you want one, start making noise. Let Jeep CEO Mike Manley know now because the next generation Grand Cherokee drops in 2020, and FCA won’t be investing in major upgrades to the WK2 in its final two years of production.

[Images: FCA, Ford]

Join the conversation
2 of 35 comments
  • Npaladin2000 Npaladin2000 on May 24, 2016

    Honestly, I think if Jeep is looking to grow somewhere, other than Raptor-type vehicles (which are a good place to go, mind you) I think they should look into WRC. I'm not even sure FCA is active in WRC right now, but that would by an idea place for "go anywhere" Jeep to showcase itself to the world. You can work in Abarth and SRT callouts if you want, referencing the suspension, powertrain, etc, but I would love to see the rumoured Renegade Trackhawk come from a WRC variant. Then again, TRACK-hawk is a dumb appelation for go-anywhere Jeep anyway. Call it RoadHawk or RallyHawk. In fact, try this on for size: RallyHawk - WRC-style setup, compete with the WRX, Juke NISMO, etc DesertHawk (yeah, I know, trademark issues) - Medium-duty off-roading and desert driving, Raptor-style TrailHawk - Rock crawling and mountain busting, classic Jeep style.

  • White Shadow White Shadow on May 24, 2016

    Fact of the matter is that a regular Grand Cherokee has far more off-road capability than 99% of owners will ever need or use. That's even true for models with 20" wheels standard, like the Overland or Summit. People generally don't take their $50K SUVs of road. Maybe in ten years when they are beaters, but definitely not when new. An off-road version is silly and it wouldn't sell very well, especially compared to the base version.

  • Jeff S I saw a You Tube on this recently that said this truck was going to be midsize and just an EV. I hope that this truck is a true compact and that it will have ICE and hybrid as well especially a plug in hybrid. Matthew please keep us informed of any additional information that is released about this truck. This is good to have more competition in the compact truck market with Toyota already planning to release the Stout and GM talking about a compact truck.
  • SCE to AUX Whoa, I like the looks of that thing.
  • ToolGuy Found this.
  • SCE to AUX Their splash was the sound of breaking through thin ice. It's a matter of time until they withdraw from the US.
  • SCE to AUX I've said for years that the NACS Tesla protocol should become the standard.I had hoped the Feds would settle it, but it's probably better for the industry to do it.Now let's see if Ford and GM will help fund further Supercharger expansion.